Blue Marble - March 2010

Census Data Used to Model Disease

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 5:46 PM EDT

The 2000 Census data were used to create a synthetic (virtual) US population that helped simulate the spread of infectious outbreaks, including H1N1. The 2010 Census data will do more of the same. And more.

The project is part of the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study at the NIH. It took the country's 2000 population of 281 million people and 116 million households to create a synthetic population, which doesn't exactly reproduce your hometown, but comes close.

Since the census protects individual privacy, the synthetic population is anonymous too—though it does provide population, household sizes, family incomes, and residents' ages and ethnicities for every town, county, and state in the nation. Plugging all this information into computers, the researchers created a mirror image of the country with the same demographics as the real one.

Disease modelers can now manipulate all or selected parts of the ready-made synthetic population—the entire country, for instance, or just one town. They can also program virtual citizens to behave in certain ways: some choose vaccination, others don't.

The synthetic population will also enable modelers to study the impact of social networks on disease spread. Researchers can track where synthetic individuals work or go to school, who they live with, and who they're likely to meet running errands. Since people get sick when they come into contact with others who've been infected, studying social patterns in models should help in understanding the real world.

Next up: international synthetic populations. RTI International in North Carolina has already finished a synthetic population for the 110 million people of Mexico. They're currently working on India. These will eventually help to model the spread of disease globally.
 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Offshore Outrage

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 4:46 PM EDT

Throwing open vast swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore drilling is the latest effort by the Obama administration to grease the way forward on comprehensive energy and climate reform. But the administration's conciliatory approach—which has largely entailed the administration giving and its congressional opponents taking—is looking increasingly like a gamble that's going to backfire. Meanwhile, as the president extends olive branches to his critics, he's alienating allies in the environmental community, who say his policies are reminding them more and more of those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Some enviros are even likening Obama to Alaska's oil-loving ex-governor, Sarah Palin.

"Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's drill baby drill campaign?" quipped Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford in a statement on Wednesday.

Under the administration's plan, hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin territory along the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and within the Arctic Ocean will soon be available. Obama has framed offshore drilling as a sweetener to draw more support for his other energy plans, such as expanding the use of renewable energy resources and putting a cap on carbon pollution. But on Wednesday Obama announced a major drilling expansion with no promise in return that opponents of his energy plans would relent in their efforts to block them.

Beginning on the campaign trail, Obama signaled that he would be willing to include drilling as part of a deal to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation. He reaffirmed that idea in his State of the Union address this year, declaring a the clean energy future will require "making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."

But so far the deal-making has been largely one-sided. The Senate remains at an impasse over climate and energy legislation. And even if Congress passes anything this year to address climate change--a big if--it’s not going to be as aggressive as Obama and his environmental supporters originally envisioned. In the pursuit of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, the senators hammering out the legislation have been heavily courting industry and fossil-fuel friendly senators, but to date there has been little payoff in terms of support. The administration's announcement is just the latest concession to woo votes, say enviros. "He’s hoping it jars loose some Republican votes and quiets some of 'drill, baby, drill' crazies," said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program at Sierra Club. "I don't know how this helps. This isn’t the magic wand to get to 60 votes."

Republicans Hate Obama's Offshore Plan Too

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 3:23 PM EDT

Environmental groups and some coastal state senators are ticked off by today’s announcement on offshore drilling. But so, predictably, are Republicans, who maintain that the Obama administration’s massive expansion of oil and gas drilling doesn’t go far enough.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) fired off a statement declaring that the Obama administration "continues to defy the will of the American people" by not letting oil companies drill everywhere immediately.

"It's long past time for this Administration to stop delaying American energy production off all our shores and start listening to the American people who want an ‘all of the above’ strategy to produce more American energy and create more jobs ... Republicans are listening to the American people and have proposed a better solution--the American Energy Act--which will lower gas prices, increase American energy production, promote new clean and renewable sources of energy, and encourage greater efficiency and conservation.

He also made sure to get in a pot-shot at the Obama administration's plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, just for good measure:

At the same time the White House makes today's announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is plotting a new massive job-killer that the American people can’t afford: a cascade of new EPA regulations that will punish every American who dares to flip on a light switch, drive a car, or buy an American product. Americans simply don’t want this backdoor national energy tax that will drive up energy and manufacturing costs and destroy jobs in our states and local communities.

Clearly, these overtures to Republicans on energy are finding resounding success.

Lautenberg: Obama Plan is "Kill, Baby, Kill"

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) really doesn’t like today's offshore drilling announcement from the Obama administration:

"Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” stated Lautenberg. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a 'Kill, baby, kill' policy: It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems, and I will fight this policy and continue to push for 21st-century clean energy solutions."

The senator is one of 10 who said last week that including more oil and gas drilling in an energy and climate plan would be a deal-breaker for them.

Obama to Expand Offshore Drilling

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 10:34 AM EDT

The Obama administration is set to announce announced today that it plans to open vast swaths of the outer continental shelf to offshore oil and gas extraction, making large areas of the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and Arctic Ocean available for drilling.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times broke the story late last night; President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are expected to make made the formal announcement this morning. Here’s a map showing the new areas the plan will open up.

The move officials opens up virgin terrain that has been off limits to oil and gas companies for decades. In October 2008, amidst calls of "drill, baby, drill" from conservatives, Congress failed to renew the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling. Months earlier, George W. Bush had lifted an 18-year-old executive ban on offshore drilling, which had originally been imposed by his father in 1990.

Obama, of course, could have issued his own order, but didn’t. As a candidate he changed his position on offshore drilling, a move that displeased his environmental supporters but which he touted as necessary to reaching bipartisan agreement on energy policy. “We can't drill our way out of the problem," said Obama at the time. "I also recognize that in the House and the Senate, there are Republicans who have very clear ideas about what they want, and at some point people are going to have to make some decisions,” he continued. "Do we want to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?"

It’s an approach he's maintained as president, again calling for expanded drilling in his State of the Union address in January. But while the area was officially opened to drilling in 2008, the new leasing plan from the Obama administration will mark the first sale of leases on these tracts of land. More drilling has been offered as a deal-sweetener on a climate and energy legislation, though it’s stirred up controversy in the Senate among coastal state Democrats.

There is some positive news in the initial reports on today's announcement: the Pacific Coast, the area of the Atlantic from New Jersey northward, and Alaska’s Bristol Bay will not be included in the leasing. But environmental activists aren’t happy about how much the administration has given away in the new plan.

Oceana said in a statement that the group is "appalled" by Obama's "wholesale assault on the oceans." Environment America said in a statement to Mother Jones that the group is "outraged" by the expansion. "It makes no sense to threaten our beaches, wildlife and tourism industry with spills and other drilling disasters when we’re about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence--cleaner cars and cleaner fuels."

"Is this President Obama's clean energy plan or Palin's drill baby drill campaign?" said Greenpeace Executive Director Phil Radford.

I'll have more on the announcement shortly.

Geoengineering for Fun and Profit (Asilomar Dispatch 4)

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

To say there's no money in geoengineering right now is an understatement. But that hasn't stopped either scientists or critics from fretting over the role of profit motive in climate-intervention politics.

I met Dan Whaley last week at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies. He's the CEO of Climos, a company we've written about that is researching ways to sequester atmospheric carbon by seeding the seas with iron. The nutrient promotes blooms of phytoplankton, single-celled organisms that suck up carbon dioxide as the grow. When they die, in theory, they sink to depths where the carbon is trapped. (Eventually, Climos may be able to license the technology or sell carbon offsets based on the method—and other companies are attempting similar strategies with other nutrients.) But the jury is out on how long the carbon remains out of circulation. And as with most geoengineering schemes, iron fertilization raises more questions than it has answered.

The potential side effects of this and other methods are scary enough that ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization, recently circulated a letter protesting the premise of the Asilomar gathering. "This is about people with commercial ties trying to offer a way out while we continue to pollute and use fossil fuels," says Silvia Ribeiro, an ETC program manager. "It's extremely convenient for politicians."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What's Really Inside Your iPhone?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:10 AM EDT

In just three days, the Apple iPad arrives, buoyed by breathless talk of saving magazines, killing the Kindle, and bringing portable porn to the masses. Steve Jobs' latest gadget may indeed prove revolutionary, but what's inside it is anything but. The iPad, like the iPhone, iPod, and virtually every other electronic device out there, is packed with components whose cutting-edge applications mask their often-sketchy origins. For our current issue, I deconstructed an iPhone 3GS' guts and found that if they could talk, they might tell tales of conflict minerals from Congo, sweatshop labor, environmentally damaging mining, and e-waste. That might not keep you from shelling out for your next favorite gizmo. Just don't expect it to be filled with solar-power unicorns. Click here to learn more about where your electronics' "killer apps" really come from.   

Sarah Silverman Meets Climate

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 5:37 PM EDT

I can't attend this event tonight, but I imagine it will be quite a hoot: Phelim McAleer, the filmmaker behind Not Evil, Just Wrong, debates Amanda Little, author of Power Trip, a new book on clean energy solutions. And it’s hosted by Sarah Silverman and sponsored by Lexus (yes, the car company).

McAleer, a climate skeptic, created the video now used as a recruitment tool for Tea Partiers, as Stephanie Mencimer reported last fall. I also encountered McAleer at the Copenhagen climate summit last December getting kicked out of a press conference. And Little is a former coworker of mine at Grist, whose new book on the energy past and future of the US is a must-read. And Silverman … well, she's better known for jokes that I can’t repeat on our blog. Like this one.

From the press release:

On Tuesday, March 30, 2010, Lexus will introduce the CT 200h premium compact hybrid for the first time to North America with an original event – a debate between a proponent and a skeptic of climate change.
Welcome to the darker side of green.
The exchange, moderated by the one and only Sarah Silverman, will include the journalist and author of Power Trip Amanda Little (the proponent) debating the director and producer of Not Evil Just Wrong Phelim McAleer (the skeptic).

Actually, I’m pretty sure there have been debates between skeptics and those who believe in climate change in the past. But it probably hasn’t been as funny. It’s taking place at the New York Auto Show, for anyone in the area, and we'll try to get video afterwards. Just think -- all we've needed to bring together the two sides of the climate debate for all these years was the introduction of a hybrid luxury car.

Ocean Conveyer Holding Steady

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

The latest analysis of data from 2002 and 2009 shows no slowing of the North Atlantic portion of the "ocean conveyer" that keeps Europe warm.

Physical oceanographer Joshua Willis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena analyzed sea surface height using satellite measurements, combined with temperature, salinity, and velocity data collected by free-floating Argo drifters to calculate the flow of the conveyor at 41°N.

His paper in the current Geophysical Research Letters finds no significant slowing in the critical climate switch known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. From the abstract:

Global warming has been predicted to slow the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), resulting in significant regional climate impacts across the North Atlantic and beyond. Here, satellite observations of sea surface height (SSH) along with temperature, salinity and velocity from profiling floats are used to estimate changes in the northward-flowing, upper limb of the AMOC at latitudes around 41°N. The 2004 through 2006 mean overturning is found to be 15.5 ± 2.4 Sv (106 m3/s) with somewhat smaller seasonal and interannual variability than at lower latitudes. There is no significant trend in overturning strength between 2002 and 2009. Altimeter data, however, suggest an increase of 2.6 Sv since 1993, consistent with North Atlantic warming during this same period. Despite significant seasonal to interannual fluctuations, these observations demonstrate that substantial slowing of the AMOC did not occur during the past 7 years and is unlikely to have occurred in the past 2 decades.

Science Now reports that a finding of no slowing is fine by physical oceanographer Carl Wunsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The satellite-drifter analysis is only the latest evidence against a slowing, Wunsch says. And at this rate, it will likely be decades before the conveyor changes enough to be detected by in situ or satellite-borne instruments.

The video is one of NASA's better pieces, with Josh Willis decribing how the satellite observations of sea surface height work.

 

 

House Members Call for Carbon Cap

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

The House environmental caucus has a message for the Senate: don't send us a climate and energy bill that only does half the job.

This is the latest dispatch from representatives concerned that the Senate will screw up their work on a comprehensive climate and energy package. A group of moderate Senate Democrats has been agitating for an energy-only bill. At the same time, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other senators working on an energy package have maintained that it shouldn’t be a "half-assed" bill (i.e., should contain a cap on carbon along with energy policies), but there’s considerable concern that the Senate bill won't be as strong as the House-passed version.

On Friday, 45 House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer calling for a bill that includes strong energy and climate goals. They also sent copies to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama. The representatives are all members of the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition, a block of progressive Democrats organized in January 2009 to advocate for clean energy policies. "[I]t is of the highest priority that any comprehensive energy legislation includes reductions of greenhouse gas emissions necessary to spur private investment in American clean energy technology," wrote Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), co-chairman of the SEEC, in the letter.

"It is essential that a comprehensive energy bill includes greenhouse gas emissions targets and durable mechanisms to ensure those targets are achieved," the letter continued. A carbon cap, the letter argues, "gives industry predictability and strong incentive."

Inslee said in a statement that he is "encouraged by the bipartisan work to get an energy bill in the Senate," but House members want to reaffirm that the cap is an "essential" component of legislation.