Blue Marble - February 2010

Changing Landscapes, Changing Wing Shapes

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 8:57 PM EST

A new study shows how North American birds have changed the shape of their wings in the past century as the landscapes around them have been fragmented by clear-cutting

The research by André Desrochers from Université Laval involved the examination of 800 birds from museum collections. From his paper in Ecology:

Major landscape changes caused by humans may create strong selection pressures and induce rapid evolution in natural populations. In the last 100 years, eastern North America has experienced extensive clear-cutting in boreal areas, while afforestation has occurred in most temperate areas. Based on museum specimens, I show that wings of several boreal forest songbirds and temperate songbirds of non-forest habitats have become more pointed over the last 100 years. In contrast, wings of most temperate forest and early-successional boreal forests species have become less pointed over the same period. In contrast to wing shape, the bill length of most species did not change significantly through time.

Desrochers points out that these results are consistent with the habitat isolation hypothesis: that songbirds evolve changes in their mobility in response to changes in the amount and size of available habitat. Boreal forests have suffered severe deforestation over the past century. Thus, Desrochers predicted, songbirds from those areas would develop more pointed wings to enhance their flying abilities over the longer distances between habitat patches. Pointed wings are more energy efficient for sustained flight.

Another example of the complexity of landscape changes and their knock-on effects is given by Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye in one of their excellent online ornithology essays on the Stanford U website. Here they describe the huge range expansion of cowbirds, a species that practices nest parasitism:

When Christopher Columbus landed, cowbirds are thought to have been largely confined to open country west of the Mississippi, because the continuous forests of the eastern United States did not provide suitable habitat for their ground feeding or social displays. As the forests were cleared, cowbirds extended their range, occupying most of the East but remaining rare until this century. Then increased winter food supply, especially the rising abundance of waste grain in southern rice fields, created a cowbird population explosion. The forest-dwelling tropical migrants—especially vireos, warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers—have proven very vulnerable to cowbird parasitism. And that vulnerability is highest for those birds nesting near the edge of wooded habitat and thus closest to the open country preferred by the cowbirds.

Desrochers points out that the rapid physical evolution seen in the birds in his analysis could mitigate—though not necessarily prevent—regional extinctions.

Thanks to Rob Goldstein for his excellent blogging at Conservation Maven for the heads-up on the Ecology paper.
 

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Update Jenny McCarthy & Co. Hit Back Against Autism Ruling

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 7:39 PM EST

Earlier this week, we and  dozens of other news organizations around the world reported that the esteemed British medical journal Lancet had retracted in its entirety the foundational article of the anti-vax movement, which purported to show a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. Not only has Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who wrote the paper and spearheaded the movement been roundly condemned for his theory and the barbaric research that produced it, no other scientist in a decade of well-funded research has been able to reproduce his results. Not one. Ever. Not even close.

Yet, thanks to his fear-mongering, hundreds of thousands of children in developed countries once thought free of diseases like measles and mumps have been sickened after their parents (or their playmates parents, or their neighbors' parents) refused the vaccine. This week alone, there were 99 cases of the mumps reported in New York. That's nearly a quarter of all the mumps cases reported in the entire country in 2008. And because both diseases are highly contagious (in the case of mumps, even vaccinated children are at risk if disease prevalence is high enough) and both flourish in the spring, those numbers are only going to skyrocket. 

After all of this, who comes to Dr. Wakefield's side? Who defends his research to the American public? Celebrity parents Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey of course, who, bless their hearts, have the combined medical expertise of naught. Who, despite its eminent availability at their beloved University of Google, have never apparently heard of the hundreds of thousands of children under five who die of the measles every year or the innumerable studies showing no evidence of a link between vaccination and autism. 

 

Virginia GOP Uses Blizzard to Spread Climate Lies

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 1:54 PM EST

Wintry weather is hitting Virginia and Washington, D.C. today, with an expected snowfall of two feet (or more!). This has presented an opportunity for the Virginia GOP to exploit confusion over climate change, with new ads running in the state targeting Reps. Rick Boucher and Tom Periello for supporting cap-and-trade legislation.

The ads mock Boucher and Periello because they "think global warming is a serious problem for Virginia"—so serious they voted to "kill tens of thousands of Virginia jobs just to stop it." The ad features images of falling snow, stuck cars, and weathermen, and urges viewers to call the congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend. Maybe they'll come help you shovel."

The willful ignorance about the difference between "weather" and "climate" aside (not to mention the fact that it's supposed to snow in winter), there's perhaps a more important issue here: Virginia's new governor, Bob McDonnell, also thinks climate change is a problem. As Blue Virginia points out, McDonnell recognizes that planet-warming emissions are "a real concern" and "we need to find ways to be able to reduce" them.

Nonetheless, the Virginia GOP sees a blizzard as the perfect time to start the mid-term elections battle with lies and opportunism:

Politics and the Pika

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 12:10 PM EST

The American pika, a tiny mammal that lives in the mountains of the West, does not fare well in temperatures above 78 degrees. It also needs snowpack to stay warm in the winter, meaning that warming could also cause them to freeze to death. Either way, pikas are screwed in a warming world.

The pika is so imperiled that they should be listed as endangered, argued the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice in petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But on Friday, Fish and Wildlife declined to list the pika, noting that though populations in the West are declining, those in other areas are not, meaning protection at this point is not warranted.

CBD and Earthjustice argue, however, that the warming temperatures will cause pikas to disappear in 80 percent of their habitats across the United States by the end of the century. "To conclude that this species is not threatened by climate change is an impossible gamble that we can't afford," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice.

A January 2010 article in the journal Bioscience notes, "There’s enough evidence to say that pikas are going to be among the first mammals to be adversely affected by climate change."

Today's decision was met with anger from those petitioning for an endangered listing. "This is a political decision that ignores science and the law," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist at CBD, in a statement. "Scientific studies clearly show that the pika is disappearing from the American West due to climate change and needs the immediate protections of the Endangered Species Act to help prevent its extinction. The Interior Department has chosen to sit on its hands instead of taking meaningful action to protect our nation’s wildlife from climate change."

Of course, the campaign to list the pika as endangered also has greater political motivations. Once a species is listed as endangered, the government is by law obligated to protect that species. Typical ESA protections would, for instance, make certain habitats of endangered species off limits for development. But in cases where the threat is global climate change caused by emissions from human activity, limiting that threat would require economy-wide action. It would create a greater legal impetus for limiting carbon dioxide emissions.

It's very similar to the case for putting the polar bear on the endangered species list, as their lives are also threatened by the overarching problem of global warming. But the Department of Interior under Bush decided to list as merely "threatened", which doesn't have the same legal ramifications. Obama's DOI Secretary, Ken Salazar, upheld that decision last year, arguing that the Endangered Species Act "is not the proper mechanism for controlling our nation’s carbon emissions." Instead, what the polar bear, and now the pika, need is "comprehensive energy and climate strategy that curbs climate change and its impacts." CBD, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace are currently suing over the polar bear listing.

It is true that legislation from Congress is the best way to protect critters (including humans) from the impacts of climate change. But if nothing is done about climate soon, the Western pika and the polar bear may very well be toast.

The Underwear Bomber and Climate Legislation

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 10:44 AM EST

VoteVets, a progressive veterans group, on Thursday launched a $2 million television ad campaign linking dependence on fossil fuels to the Christmas Day underwear bomber.

The ads target Democrats and Republicans in seven states, and issue "a reminder that terrorists continue to target America, and that every day we continue our dependence on Middle East Oil, we continue to send money to nations with ties to terror," said the group.

The ads in Missouri target Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, and feature James Sander, an Iraq War veteran. "When a terrorist tried to attack us on Christmas Day, I was reminded why I'm willing to risk my life for America's security, and why we need to stop sending billions to countries with ties to terrorism," says Sanders. The ad accuses Blunt of taking thousands from oil companies that do business in countries with ties to terrorism, listing Yemen, Iran, and Libya, and others.

The ads target a range of legislators. Blunt voted against the House climate bill last June. Mark Kirk was one of the handful of Republicans to vote for it, but has backtracked now that he is running for Senate. John Barrasso (R-Wy.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are all expected to vote against legislation in the Senate, if it ever comes up, and Democrat Evan Bayh (Ind.) also looks like a likely opponent.

Here is the ad targeting Thune in Wyoming:

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 5

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 7:02 AM EST

Mystery Tour: What's the Pentagon testing in the desert? A death ray perhaps?

Recession's Cost: As recession wears on, state healthcare programs are faltering.

Telling on DADT: At a Congressional hearing, long-time military men talk 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

What a Boob: Are explosives-laden breast implants something to worry about?

Black Gold: Oil corporations are outraged Obama's taking their tax breaks.

High Hopes: Sen. Harry Reid says he hopes Dems move healthcare forward.

No Cigar: Sen. Nancy Pelosi says Dems are 'very close' to passing healthcare bill.

Nothing to Lose: Poll shows Democrats have nothing to lose from passing bill.

 

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Polar Waters Acidifying

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 10:07 PM EST

The increasing acidity of the world ocean is a threat to marine species, says world-renowned Antarctic marine biologist Jim McClintock, who's ongoing research explores the chemical defenses of polar marine organisms and impacts of ocean acidification on marine invertebrates. Carbon dioxide sequestered from the atmosphere by the ocean is interfering with aragonite saturation seasonally in Arctic waters. The problem is predicted to become a constant in Arctic and Antarctic waters by 2050, seriously impacting marine life that builds shells or shell-like structures.

McClintock tells UAB:

"Existing data points to consistently increasing oceanic acidity, and that is a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; it is incontrovertible. The ramifications for many of the organisms that call the water home are profound. There is no existing data that I am aware of that can be used to debate the trend of increasing ocean acidification."

McClintock and co-authors reviewed recent data on ocean acidification at high latitudes for an article (pdf) in the journal Oceanography, for an issue focusing on ocean acidification worldwide. McClintock also recently published research that revealed barnacles grown under acidified seawater conditions produce weaker adult shells.

McClintock Point, in Explorers Cove, Antarctica, was named for Jim McClintock in 1998.

Doing the Math on Green Jobs

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:06 PM EST

"Clean energy jobs" get a lot of lip-service these days. But just how many of them would be created if Congress actually passed legislation that would require states to draw power from renewables?

A new report from the RES Alliance, a group of renewable energy companies, finds that the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector "would more than double by 2025" if the United States puts in place a renewable electricity standard, often called an RES, that would mandate that states draw a certain percentage of power from renewable sources. A federal RES would create 274,000 additional jobs in the renewable electricity industry. But there's a caveat -- Congress would have to enact a 25 percent RES in order to create those jobs.

But even the House-passed climate and energy bill didn't meet that goal. That bill requires 20 percent to come from renewables by 2020, but it would allow 5 percent of the requirement be met through efficiency measures rather than new renewable capacity. The House bill would also allows governors to petition for a weaker standard if they don't believe their states can meet the target. It originally had a higher standard, but moderate Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee negotiated it down.

The Senate version currently in legislative purgatory sets the target even lower, requiring utilities to draw just 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources or energy-efficiency measures by 2021. Up to a quarter of that can be met through efficiency.

The RES Alliance argues that the bill's targets should be raised to 12 percent in 2014, 20 percent in 2020, and 25 percent in 2025, purely from renewables like wind, solar, and biomass. Clean-power advocates note that more ambitious near-term goals are particularly vital to boosting the industry and creating new jobs. The lower figures under consideration in Congress won't generate many new jobs beyond the trajectory the industry is already on without a federal standard, they argue. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have an RES in place.

The study, conducted by Navigant Consulting, finds that every state in the country would see some job growth with a higher RES in place. Some states might gain under 2,500 jobs, but some could gain up to 20,000. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Tennessee, Texas, and Colorado are expected to see the biggest growth in new jobs. Fifty-two percent of those jobs would be in manufacturing, 23 percent in construction and trades, and 11 percent in engineering and professional technical services, meaning it could create both blue collar jobs and jobs for college graduates with technical skills.

Moms Get Plastic, Kids Get Asthma?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 9:18 PM EST

More bad news on the health effects of bisphenol A (BPA), that organic compound used as a building block in many plastics—including in plastic water bottles, food packaging, sunglasses, and CDs.

New experiments on mice at the University of Texas Galveston find evidence that a mother's exposure to BPA may also increase the odds that her children will develop asthma.

Mice were given BPA in drinking water starting a week before pregnancy at levels calculated to produce a concentration the same as in a human mother. The dosing continued through pregnancy and lactation. Indicators of asthma showed up strongly in the BPA-exposed group, much more so than in the pups of the nonexposed mice.

We know that prior studies have linked BPA exposure to reproductive disorders, obesity, and abnormal brain developmen, as well as breast and prostate cancers. In January the Food and Drug Administration announced its concern about "the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and young children."

Lead author of the paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, Terumi Midoro-Horiuti, tells U Texas:

"We also need to look at doing more epidemiological studies directly in humans, which is possible because BPA is so prevalent in the environment—all of us are already loaded with it to a varying extent. For example, it should be possible to determine if children who have more BPA exposure are more likely to develop asthma."
 

At the Intersection of Climate Science and Voluptuous Breasts ...

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 5:16 PM EST

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has a scintillating new piece of writing. No, I'm not talking about the latest climate assessment report. In January Pachauri released his first novel, Return to Almora, which details the life and sexual conquests of Sanjay Nath, an academic in his 60s who frets over how politicians have "endangered the fragile ecosystem."

The Telegraph has a copy and printed excerpts that might be too racy to repeat here on Blue Marble. Let's just say it includes phrases like "caressing her voluptuous breasts" and "the excitement got the better of him, before he could even get started."

It's no Political Economy of Global Energy or Dynamics of Electrical Energy Supply and Demand: An Economic Analysis of course. While his climate and energy work helped win him a Nobel Peace Prize, the Telegraph posits that this work is "unlikely to win awards other than the Bad Sex in Fiction prize."

Even without reading the whole book, I'd venture to say that Pachauri maybe should have spent more time analyzing glacial data and less time describing how Sanjay fondles heaving and/or voluptuous breasts.