Blue Marble - January 2010

Mud, the New Plastic

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 9:21 PM EST

Seems like we may have a means of weaning ourselves off oil. At least plastics made from oil.

The research from the University of Tokyo, published in Nature, describes a new and better "plastic" brewed from clay, water, a thickening agent (sodium polyacrylate) and an organic "molecular glue."

The end result is a super strong, self-healing, transparent and elastic hydrogel composed of 98 percent water and bound by supramolecular forces, otherwise known as "smart molecules."

Better yet, the gel takes just 3 minutes to form, and making it requires no understanding of the chemical process involved, reports New Scientist:

"Toughness, self-healing and robustness are just some of the initial physical properties that will be found for this new class of materials," Craig Hawker [of UCSB, not involved in the study] says. "I predict that this approach will lead to the design of even more impressive materials in the near future."

This is big. Big enough to score an ultra-prestigious Nature publication. Maybe big enough to significantly change the future. Good old mud.
 

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Black is the New Green

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 5:35 PM EST

First, it was "green coal." Now oil is apparently going green too.

Petroleum News has launched a new publication, Greening of Oil—"a science-based publication...scrutinizing what is being done to make hydrocarbons a more earth-friendly energy source," according to its mission statement.

I don't want to knock the magazine entirely. Any effort the oil industry makes to reduce the damage it does to the environment is a good thing. And I'm actually interested in reading about Shell developing new technologies that reduce the footprint of drilling operations, for instance, or about what natural gas producers are doing to conserve water. But let's be honest—extracting oil from the ground and burning it is never going to be "green."

Memo to Coal States: Adapt or Die

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 11:38 AM EST

Whether or not Congress passes climate legislation setting a cap on carbon dioxide, the future of coal in the United States looks bleak. Coal production in Central Appalachia is expected to decline by nearly 50 percent in the next decade, according to a new report from environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies.

Coal-producing counties in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and eastern Tennessee can expect a sharp decline in production, which has already fallen substantially over the last 12 years. Production peaked in 1997 at 290 million tons and fell 20 percent by 2008, due largely to increased competition from other regions and types of fuel and the depletion of the most accessible coal deposits. Though there are still substantial coal reserves, the study predicts a 46 percent decline in production by 2020 and a 58 percent decline by 2035.

And that's not even counting the effect of strict emissions regulations that would likely reduce future demand for coal and cause further decline in coal jobs. In the region examined in the report, 37,000 workers were either directly and indirectly employed by the coal industry in 2008, accounting for up to 40 percent of the jobs in some counties.

"Should substantial declines occur as projected, coal-producing counties will face significant losses in employment and tax revenue, and state governments will collect fewer taxes from the coal industry," write report authors Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen. "State policy-makers across the Central Appalachian region should therefore take the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impact from the decline."The authors recommend that affected states introduce renewable energy standards of 25 percent by 2025, as well as tax incentives for renewable production, grants, energy bond and loan programs, and job training programs to help workers transition to new industries.

And their message may be getting through: even the coal industry's best friend in the Senate, Robert Byrd, has recently warned that coal states must "anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it."

Why Lawns Suck

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 9:27 PM EST

The turfgrass in lawns may be hard-working photosynthesizing plants that store our harmful CO2 emissions in the form of organic carbon in the soil. But the way we tend lawns actually creates four times more emissions than the grasses sequester.

This according to a new study (pdf) of southern California lawns in Geophysical Research Letters. The problems stem from using fertilizers, gasoline-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and all the other living hells of modern lawn management.

Lawn emissions also includes nitrous oxide released from soil after fertilization. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Worse, partly as a result of the unexamined rush to "green" urban spaces, we've now covered 1.9 percent of all the land in the contiguous US with lawns.

Worst, lawns are the most common irrigated crop in our irrigated country.

The researchers analyzed grass in four parks near Irvine, California, each with two types of turf: ornamental lawns (picnic areas), left largely undisturbed; athletic fields (soccer and baseball), trampled, replanted, and aerated frequently. Findings:

  • Ornamental lawns offset only 10 to 30 percent of the nitrous oxide emissions from fertilization offset, plus fossil fuel consumption from mowers and whatnot released four times more CO2 than the plots could take up.
  • Athletic fields performed even worse, since wear and tear continually disrupted the grasses' efforts, and because they needed constant tilling and resodding, therefore trapping way less CO2 than ornamental lawns yet requiring the same emissions-producing care.

I've always hated lawns. Talk about a time-and-energy suck. Now a climate suck too.
 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, January 19

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 2:12 PM EST

CA Rules: New HMO rules in California mean getting urgent care in two days, non-urgent in ten.

Plague and Peril: Historians say the the Black Death was worse in the Middle East than in Europe.

Treading Water: Lifestyles with high energy, water consumption is pushing Gulf states into crisis. [Financial Times]

Healthcare v. Jobs: Saying Obama should focus more on jobs is unsupported, says Kevin Drum.

Wing Man: Sen. Jim Webb may be the mystery Democrat helping Murkowski's environment bill.

BPA Bad: FDA issues BPA warning, and Early Show finds tuna sandwich ups BPA blood levels. [CBS]

Haiti Help: Bearing health kits and bags of rice, one American's tale of going to Haiti.

Hail Mary: Last-minute ads paint Massachusetts candidate Scott Brown as an environmental foe.

Burning in Balad: In Iraq, fumes from open-air trash fires may be sickening soldiers. [Navy Times]

Econundrum: 10 Free Eco-Apps for Your iPhone

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 7:00 AM EST

At last count, there were more than 100,000 applications for the iPhone. The vast majority are useless timesucks, but a few are environmentally-minded timesucks. Here are 10 free ones that are be worth taking a break from playing Tap Tap Revenge to check out:

iRecycle: Looking for a place to drop off tough-to-recycle stuff like bubble wrap or tennis balls? Type in your debris of choice and iRecycle will list nearby disposal spots. It can even suggest resting places for your iPhone—just in case it breaks after falling from your cold, dead hands. (If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, EcoFinder is an excellent alternative.)

GoodGuide: This app's built-in bar-code scanner is pretty nifty. Snap the UPC symbol on, say, a box of cereal, and voila—you'll get its scores from GoodGuide, a website that rates products' health, environmental, and social impacts. You can also search its online database of more than 70,000 items.

Seafood Watch: A handy app for getting the dirt on the catch of the day, sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Includes a sushi guide filled with dismaying facts such as the true origins of unagi. Eel farms? Say it isn't so!

Label Lookup: Eco-labels are supposed to make shopping easier, but they can be downright baffling. This app from the Natural Resources Defense Council makes it easy to look-up labels on the fly and get a quick sense of which ones are the real deal and which ones are covering something up. (Or just print and save MoJo's eco-label guide.)

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Whaling Loses Another Flimsy Rationale

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 10:00 PM EST

A genetic analysis of Antarctic minke whales reveals these small baleen whales are not more populous now as a result of the intensive hunting of larger whales last century. The findings run counter to the belief of commercial whalers that the world is overrun with minke whales who need culling.

Cull (kul) v.t. A lame excuse to go hunting.

Miraculously, Antarctic minkes weren't decimated along with the other baleen and toothed whales in the 20th century. Blue whales were reduced to  1-2 percent of their previous numbers. Fin whales to 2-3 percent. Humpbacks to less than 5 percent.

Consequently, the "Krill Surplus Hypothesis" postulates that the two million whales who were killed in the Southern Ocean left behind a surplus of krill and a shortfall of predators. This supposedly paved the way for minke numbers to explode.

Except they didn't. The researchers analyzed genomic DNA from 52 samples of minke whale meat purchased in Japanese markets. The whales were killed during commercial whaling thinly disguised as "scientific whaling." The findings in Molecular Ecology:

  • Historical population of Antarctic minkes stood at roughly 670,000 individuals
  • Current population of Antarctic minkes stands at roughly the same number

Scott Baker, a whale geneticist at Oregon State University told OSU:

"Some scientists involved in the International Whaling Commission have suggested that Antarctic minke whales have increased three-fold to eight-fold over the last century because of the lack of competition for krill. But until now, there has been little evidence to help judge what historic populations of minke whales actually were. Our study clearly shows that minke whales today have a great deal of genetic diversity, which reflects a long history of large and relatively stable population size. This genomic approach is a significant advance over most previous studies, which have examined diversity using only a handful of genetic markers."

No one eats whale meat anymore. The Japanese feed it to their dogs. No excuses left.
 

Recycle Your Cell Phone For Haiti

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 4:38 PM EST

Here's a cool program that allows you to donate to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti and put your old cell phones to good use: Through ReCellular's Phones for Haiti program, you can send in your old phones to be refurbished and sold in the developing world. The profits from the phones are then donated to the Red Cross. According to Inhabitat blog, fancy phones (iphones and the like) can fetch as much as $100 a pop.

It's an interesting idea, but I imagine getting actual refurbished cell phones into the hands of relief workers and quake victims would be helpful as well. Anyone know of any programs that allow you to donate your old phone directly? 

UPDATE: Maybe ReCellular's model is best after all. According to this Global Post article, in-kind donations can actually worsen the suffering after natural disasters. 

The Great Promise of Voodoo Wasps

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 3:57 PM EST

Researchers have sequenced the genome of three species of parasitic "voodoo wasps." Since the tiny creatures feed on insects that plague crops, scientists believe they could serve as an alternative to chemical pesticides. If that weren't cool enough news on its own, consider their method of killing, which sounds like something out of a sci-fi film. A zombie flick, to be precise. The wasps get their Voodoo nickname from their habit of zombifying their prey:

The three wasps all belong to the Nasonia genus and are strictly speaking "parasitoid" species, meaning that they lay their eggs inside the paralysed bodies of other insects, keeping them alive long enough for the wasp larvae to grow and mature into adults as they feed off the living flesh of their "zombie" host.

Said lead scientist John Werren in a statement, "If we can harness their full potential, they would be vastly preferable to chemical pesticides which broadly kill or poison many organisms in the environment, including us."

News of non-toxic pesticides is always welcome, but these ideas rarely take off on commercial scale, thanks in no small part to the mammoth chemical pesticide lobby. We recently reported on Obama's nomination of Islam "Isi" Siddiqui, executive of the pesticide industry lobbying group CropLife America (CLA), as chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the US Trade Representative. When Michelle Obama announced plans to plant an organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds, CLA members wrote her a letter saying the thought of chemical-free veggies made them "shudder." Touchy, touchy. Isn't it fun to imagine how they might react to a flock of chemical-free zombifying wasps?

Doomsday Delayed by One Minute

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 3:00 PM EST

Not feeling optimistic about the future of life on earth? Well, the world's atomic scientists are. On Thursday morning, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that they had moved the Doomsday Clock- a symbolic timepiece wherein midnight signals the end of the world--back one minute, from 11:55 to 11:54. We can all sleep soundly now knowing the world is six minutes from self-destruction!

The move of the symbolic ticker reflects a "more hopeful state of world affairs," the Bulletin announced, and reverses a trend of moving closer to a self-imposed end of time. The creators of the Manhattan Project created the clock in 1947 as a reminder that nuclear power could be abused to the point of ultimately destroying mankind. It's now used to symbolize not just the threats of nuclear power, but also other man-made challenges, like climate change.

The decision to move the clock comes from the scientists and policy makers on the board of the Bulletin. "We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons," the board said in a statement. "For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material. And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable."

The Washington Post notes that this is the 19th time the clock has moved since 1947. It's been moved forward 11 times and backward eight times:

It came closest to midnight in 1953, when the testing of hydrogen bombs nudged it to 11:58, and moved farthest away in 1991, when it slid to 11:43 after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The clock has been steadily ticking toward midnight since the mid-'90s, as increased terrorism destabilized regions of the world and India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs.