Blue Marble - January 2010

Arctic Seabed Leaking Methane Fast

| Wed Jan. 6, 2010 11:19 PM EST

A dramatic increase in methane gas is seeping from the Arctic seabed off Siberia. The BBC reports the evidence from measurements of carbon fluxes around the north of Russia.

Methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Worst of all, the latest research by Igor Semiletov (University of Alaska Fairbanks and head of the International Siberian Shelf Study) finds the shallow arctic shelves are shooting methane to the surface and the atmosphere without first getting sequestered in the ocean as dissolved CO2—as happens in deeper ocean waters.

Siberia's shallow seabed contains tons of frozen methane hydrates. But these waters are warming and the frozen methane is thawing. Last decade's highest-ever recorded temperature rise began to thaw some of the organic material frozen in underwater sediments, releasing methane into the sea, from there into air.

Higher concentrations of atmospheric methane are a global warming trigger, which in turn melts more permafrost (topside and underwater), creating a nasty, brutish, and potentially short positive feedback loop.

(I've blogged about the methane problem a bunch of times and wrote about it in depth in The Thirteenth Tipping Point, including the worst-case scenario of a tipping point being passed and suddenly dumping billions of tons of methane. We know this happened once before, resulting in the worst mass extinction in Earth's history.)

Combine this study with the National Snow and Ice Data Center report yesterday that December 2009 saw average air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean way higher than normal. Grim.
 

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Twisted Science of 2009

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 11:32 PM EST

Those of us who love science particularly love its occasional embrace of weirdness. Conservation Maven has been kind enough to herd some of the oddest cats of last year into one pithy column commemorating perplexing moments in conservation science.

In keeping with the twisted spirit of the work, here's my remix of six of their top nine stories from the 2nd half of the year:

  1. The twisted duck penis: Male ducks have corkscrew-shaped penises. Females ducks have vaginas spiraling in the opposite direction. Proof that God doesn't exist? Or evidence that wily hens can physically control which males will actually fertilize their eggs?
  2. Robots evolve: According to some, God did not invent evolution. But Swiss scientists have. In the course of investigating the evolution of animal communication, researchers studied an arena of foraging robots. (First: weird context, right? Second: I did not know that the collective noun for robots was an arena of robots.) The robots emitted blue light and used floor sensors to locate food and avoid poison. Natural selection (tracked via artificial genomes) favored the robots who could suppress their blue light emissions to conceal information from competitors about food location. Wow. Proof that robots evolve into Republicans?
  3. Wrestling bighorns: Canadian scientists are tougher than others. Some decided to go mano-a-horno with bighorn sheep to determine individual personality types and see how that affected reproductive success. Do dominant sheep live longer? Researcher David Coltman described the dominantest sheep of them all: "We were filled with dread when one ram we nicknamed 'Psycho' turned up in a trap. Year in and year out Psycho's reaction was the same. He tried to kill us." Proof of sheep intelligence?
  4. AstroNewts: Austrian scientists describe a bizarre defense mechanism in the Spanish ribbed newt. Faced with predators, these little amphibs twist their body up to 65 degrees, popping their pointy ribs through their skin like retractable piercings, or built-in body armor. Turns out the Spanish ribbed newt has been studied in space on at least six missions. Proof of kinky astronauts?
  5. Fruit bats lick and suck more than mangoes: Short-nosed fruit bats indulge in oral sex. Both genders. Both ways. Whew. And I thought Eve invented that apple stuff.
  6. Bears dig minivans: Black bears know where to dig for the kind of junk food that keeps kids giddily sedated. Or else they know that minivan humans are seriously messy eaters. Either way, bears break into minivans more than any other vehicle in Yosemite National Park. So say wildlife biologists. But twist it a little further and... why not proof that minivan drivers can't read? Or that rugged conformists are deaf (to rangers)? Or they're hibernating at the wheel? Dumber than bears? Proof of a God Bear?
     

Cute Endangered Animal: Tiger

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 4:26 PM EST

2010 is the year of the tiger, an Asian astrological sign known for its charisma and courageousness. Astrological tigers may be all around us, but two tiger sub-species have gone extinct since 1930, and many believe the South China Tiger is "functionally extinct" because it hasn't been seen in 20 years. Even for the remaining five tiger subspecies—Sumatran, Bengal, Indochinese, Siberian, and Malayan—the prognosis isn't good: the WWF recently announced that the 3,200 tigers living in the wild are among the most threatened creatures on Earth.

Wild tigers live in isolated pockets of jungle, usually inside wildlife refuges, in a handful of Asian countries. Tigers need a few things to survive: lots of prey like deer and pigs, water, and some dense vegetation. However, habitat encroachment has been epic in recent years and since 1900, tigers' range has decreased by 95% (see a map here).

However, I doubt that these majestic animals will disappear entirely. Their size, beauty, and potential deadliness make them popular, and lucrative, zoo exhibits around the world. In China, thousands of the big cats live in cages on tiger "farms" where tourists can visit them and where (it's been reported) tiger blood, bile, bones, paws, and other parts are harvested for the black market, for use in expensive traditional medicines. International regulations prohibit trafficking or selling any tiger parts, but China has lobbied for a suspension of the rule in the case of farmed tigers, arguing that the sale of legal tiger parts could reduce poaching and fund conservation efforts. So far, their appeals have been unsuccessful, and the black market in tiger parts continues to thrive. Like the Giant Panda, the tiger may go extinct in the wild, but its monetary value to zoos and the black market means it will likely be around for decades to come. To learn more about tigers and how to save them, check out the World Bank's conservation program and comprehensive threat analysis here.

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The Curse of Cape Wind

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 2:22 PM EST

Cape Wind, the proposed 24-square-mile wind farm off Cape Cod, just can't catch a break. Fiercely opposed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and his family, who didn't want rows of spinning turbines sullying their view of Nantucket Sound (they claimed the turbines would cause environmental problems), and getting no help from an otherwise green-tilting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the alternative energy project now has a new opponent: the Mashpee and Wampanoag American Indian tribes.

Situated on Martha's Vineyard, the two tribes say the 130 turbines would disrupt their sunrise greeting ritual, which requires a clear view of the horizon, and disrupt ancestral burial grounds. In response to the tribes' claims, the National Register for Historic Places announced it is considering the Cape Wind location for listing on its register, potentially ruling it out as a wind farm location. While it doesn't outright kill the project, the National Register's announcement could force developers to relocate it elsewhere.

The decision struck some as an unprecedented move, the New York Times reports:

Others said the finding was surprising because Nantucket Sound, which encompasses more than 500 square miles, is by far the largest body of water ever found eligible for listing on the national historic register. Other eligible bodies of water have included Walden Pond in Massachusetts, which covers about 60 acres, and Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico, which is about 6,500 feet across, said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the park service.

"The decision is without precedent in terms of implicating many square miles of what is, legally speaking, the high seas," said Ian A. Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "But as a procedural matter, it's a good thing a decision was reached, and the secretary is getting personally involved to get it over the finish line."

Now, Cape Wind isn't dead yet. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the tribes and Cape Wind's developer they had until March 1 to reach a compromise, and even if they don't, Salazar himself could still make the final call himself. That said, it'd be quite a surprise to see Salazar go against the powerful Kennedy family, the two tribes, and rest of Cape Wind's fervent opponents.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, January 5

| Tue Jan. 5, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Happy 2010! Here are the most recent stories on the environment and health from our other blogs, and elsewhere.

RIP HIV Ban: People with HIV will now be able to enter and leave the US, reversing 1987 ban.

Mammogram Changes, Again: Even newer, more explicit guidelines for mammograms. [LiveScience]

Death, Untaxed: Some are clinging to life, hoping to make Jan. 1, 2010, estate tax suspension.

Green Re-Action: Obama may require all federal departments to research environmental effects before they start major projects. [Los Angeles Times]

Safe Skies: Airports may be safe, but why not secure train depots and shopping malls too?

Keeping Carbon: Carbon can be stored in old lava tubes, but may increase earthquake risk. [National Geographic]

 

 

CO2 Graveyard Off New York

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 11:53 PM EST

Underground burial of globe-warming CO2 is of more interest than ever following Copenhagen's do-nothing outcome. And buried volcanic rocks along the heavily populated coasts of New York, New Jersey, New England, and points further south may prove the best reservoirs found so far in the US.

Sequestration is one of those scary gambles we may be led to by default in the absence of real leadership reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The problem of course is that any burp into the atmosphere of buried CO2  would prove enormously instantly lethal to people in the area. As happened naturally in Africa.

To be practicable, sequestration needs to happen near dense population centers and industrial emissions sites. Kind of a reverse NIMBY. More like, Only In My Back Yard.

Which means the eastern seaboard, for starters.

Prior east coast sequestration research focused on inland sites: shale under New York and sandstone under New Jersey. But a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests basalt has significant advantages, and offshore basalt has even more advantages. Notably large areas off New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Georgia, and South Carolina. Plus a small area under Sandy Hook Basin, opposite New York Harbor.

This is because CO2 injected into basalt undergoes natural chemical reactions that eventually transform it into a solid mineral like limestone. Plus basalts at sea are covered not only by water but by hundreds or even thousands of feet of sediment. CO2 pressurized into liquid would have to be placed at least 2,500 feet deep for natural pressure to keep it from reverting to a gas and potentially leaking back to the surface. And the sediments on top would form impermeable caps. In theory.

So if the process works on a large scale, the danger of leaks could be reduced. The scientists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory estimate the small Sandy Hook basin alone may be capable of containing close to a billion tons of CO2… the equivalent of 40-years worth of emissions from four 1-billion-watt coal-fired plants. The largest mass extends from inland to offshore of Georgia and South Carolina.

Sure hope these basalts prove graveyards only for CO2.
 

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"China Doesn't Want to Lead, and the US Cannot Lead"

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 5:54 PM EST

In the weeks following the conclusion of the Copenhagen climate talks, three things have become very obvious: the Chinese were the biggest impediment to an international climate deal, the United States couldn't do much to change that, and the Europeans are not very happy about the whole situation.

A lot of these broad points were lost in the final shuffle at the conference, as reporters (myself included) rushed to figure out what exactly the final agreement meant and what the next steps would be. But more important are the international dynamics that became very clear at last month's meeting. Der Spiegel talked to German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen after Copenhagen, in an interview that really highlighted all three of these concerns:

SPIEGEL: By cutting a deal with the emerging economies and giving the EU the cold shoulder, the US has ushered in the end of the era of the classical West.
Röttgen: The US as leader is part of the political concept of the West. But the US hasn't led -- instead it reached a deal with China that there wouldn't be any leadership. In my perception, they have neither turned away from Europe nor really turned toward China strategically. In that sense I see an erosion of their leadership role. Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao have agreed to the lowest common denominator: China doesn't want to lead, and the US cannot lead. The major blockade at the summit grew out of an unfortunate combination of weak leadership on the part of the Americans and Chinese power to impede progress.
SPIEGEL: But isn't Europe the real loser? It was unable to push through any of its objectives.
Röttgen: No, Europe is not the loser because it presented itself as a unified bloc at the summit, with clear goals and a solid strategy. That was one of the few really positive experiences in Copenhagen and vitally important to our role in this new world order. We have shown what Europe's role could be.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps Europe has a role, but Europe has no power.
Röttgen: We cannot solve the climate problem alone because, in this sense, our emissions are too low. Our share of global emissions is only about 14 percent. We could stop emitting CO2 tomorrow and global warming would still be catastrophic. On this issue those who emit the most have the greatest power -- unfortunately.

Probably the best story to appear in the days following the talks was a piece in The Guardian documenting what actually went down in the the meetings between China, the US, and other major players. The conclusion: "China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful 'deal' so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame."

Both are recommended reading in these first week of 2010, the new target year for an international climate accord.

5 Creative Uses for: Eggs

| Mon Jan. 4, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Happy new year! My first resolution for 2010: Clean my fridge. Which, after a holiday season full of goodies, is kind of an archaeological undertaking. I'm going to compost as much as possible, and when it's not too gross, reuse things in other way. Eggshells are especially versatile. If you have eggs that have passed their expiration date, don’t chuck 'em. Try one of these ideas instead, courtesy of AltUse.com:

  1. Grow seedlings. Break eggs so that you have about two-thirds of the bottom part of the shell in tact. Rinse out. Poke a hole in the bottom with a pushpin. Fill each egg with some soil, and plant a few seeds in each egg. Place eggs back in the carton. Once the seeds are big enough to plant, put them into the ground, shells and all. The shells will act as fertilizer.
  1. Clean your disposal. Put an egg or two down your disposal—the sharp shells clean the blades.
  1. Fertilize plants. Crush five dry eggshells into a powder and add to soil before planting. Since eggs are made up mostly of calcium and magnesium, they're great for plants. To make a liquid fertilizer, just keep your eggshells in a watering can. Add water, soak for several days, then use the water for your plants. Water from boiling eggs works, too.
  1.  Scrub pots and pans. Use crushed eggshells instead of steel wool. 
  1. Make better coffee. Add a few crushed eggshells to your coffee before brewing for a smoother taste. An old cowboy trick.