Blue Marble - September 2010

Kate Sheppard on "Countdown": Jim Sensenbrenner's Climate Revenge

Thu Sep. 30, 2010 5:25 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard joined Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown to discuss the ramifications of noted climate denier and GOP congressman Jim Sensenbrenner's potential takeover of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming if Republicans win back the House in November.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here.

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Salazar: When Drilling Moratorium Ends, Expect Stricter Rules

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

The Obama administration expects to move forward with offshore drilling, but not without more strict rules on the oil and gas industry and not until officials are assured that the industry is operating safely, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday. Salazar did not indicate when he will lift the temporary moratorium on new deepwater drilling—the subject of much political and legal contention in the months since the spill—though he affirmed the administration believes that offshore drilling will remain part of the energy portfolio.

"The fact is, we still need oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico," said Salazar in a speech outlining the administration's overall energy policy. However, he said, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill "laid bare fundamental shortcomings in the oil and gas industry's safety practices" in the Gulf.

Salazar defended the moratorium in his remarks: "The same people who fought regulation and oversight in the oil and gas industry have protested the suspension from the start. They want us to ignore the new reality and to go back to business as usual as if nothing had happened," he said. "That's not an option, and we won't proceed on that front."

At the same time, he indicated that the administration expects to green light additional drilling in the future. "There will always be risks associated with deepwater drilling. Nothing in life is without risks," he said. But, he continued, "We will only lift the moratorium when I, as secretary of interior, am comfortable that we have significantly reduced those risks."

Salazar also announced two new rules in the speech—the Drilling Safety Rule and the Workplace Safety Rule—which he said will reduce the risk of another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon. The first rule, drafted under the agency's emergency rule-making authority, outlines proper practices for well cementing and casing and the use of drilling fluids—three major problems identified as potential causes of the Gulf spill. It also requires more oversight of blowout preventers, the mechanism that is supposed to shut the well in the event of an accident, and will require additional back up mechanisms. Drillers will also be required to have their plans reviewed by independent experts, Salazar said.

Salazar also announced that the agency is at last finalizing its "Safety and Environmental Management System" rule. The agency first proposed this rule, which would require oil and gas companies to develop new mandatory environmental planning procedures, more than a year ago, but the industry—most notably, BP—pushed back hard. The rule was in regulatory purgatory at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Salazar also warned that oil and gas drillers should "expect a dynamic regulatory environment" in the future as well, with other new rules coming in the next weeks and months as his agency creates the framework for proceeding on offshore drilling. He acknowledged the significant "gap" between the technologies that allow companies to drill in deep waters and the technologies and regulations that would ensure they are doing so safely.

Sea Fog: The Short, Complete Story

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 11:04 AM EDT

 

I like fog more and more with every passing year. Comforting, moody, cool, quiet, private.

This image, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, is of fog droplets jumping around at just below freezing temperatures.

Here's a high-speed image of the same fog, shot fast enough to slow the "particles" down and stop them in space. Like air champagne.

This beautiful true-color image posted by the Earth Observatory is of sea fog off Scandinavia in March 2003.

This one is too, from a day earlier.

In really cold weather, usually below −35°C/−30 °F, ice fog might form. Sometimes ice fogs triggers light pillars, as seen in this photograph. What looks like a lens flare on the camera is actually a pillar caused by the reflection of sunlight from ice crystals that happen to have nearly horizontal, parallel, flat surfaces. Therefore it really is a lens flare, only the lens is our atmosphere.  The photograph was shot somewhere in the Arctic, courtesy NOAA.

Some fogs make white rainbows, known as fogbows. Tecnically, a fogbow is just like a rainbow only made of  very small water drops less than 0.05 millimeter in diameter. Sailors call them sea dogs.

The droplets of a fogbow are so small, according to APOD (whence this photograph hails), "that the quantum mechanical wavelength of light becomes important and smears out colors that would be created by larger rainbow water drops acting like small prisms reflecting sunlight with the best angle to divert sunlight to the observer." Writing like that is exactly the reason I have a job.

 

 Photo from here.

In Scotland and northern England sea fog is also known as haar or fret. Old Saxon words. 

Most haar condenses around the nuclei of salt particles, which are the by-product of salt spray, which is the by-product of wind and waves.

kelp

Photo from here.

In a recent discovery, researchers from Scotland's Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory found that haar also condenses around the iodine particles released by kelp. The kelp emit iodine when stressed by sunlight and evaporation.

Here's the abstract of the paper:
Brown algae of the Laminariales (kelps) are the strongest accumulators of iodine among living organisms. They represent a major pump in the global biogeochemical cycle of iodine and, in particular, the major source of iodocarbons in the coastal atmosphere. Nevertheless, the chemical state and biological significance of accumulated iodine have remained unknown to this date. Using x-ray absorption spectroscopy, we show that the accumulated form is iodide, which readily scavenges a variety of reactive oxygen species (ROS). We propose here that its biological role is that of an inorganic antioxidant, the first to be described in a living system. Upon oxidative stress, iodide is effluxed. On the thallus surface and in the apoplast, iodide detoxifies both aqueous oxidants and ozone, the latter resulting in the release of high levels of molecular iodine and the consequent formation of hygroscopic iodine oxides leading to particles, which are precursors to cloud condensation nuclei. In a complementary set of experiments using a heterologous system, iodide was found to effectively scavenge ROS in human blood cells.

Photo from here.

And since sea urchins stress and control kelp (by eating them), and since sea otters control sea urchin populations (by eating them), then urchins and otters are important players in the fogweb too—at least in the Pacific.

Photo from here.

The paper:

Frithjof C. Küpper, et al. Iodide accumulation provides kelp with an inorganic antioxidant impacting atmospheric chemistry. PNAS.

Cross posted from my blog Deep Blue Home.

GOP Still Thwarting Spill Panel

| Thu Sep. 30, 2010 9:15 AM EDT

The National Oil Spill Commission continues its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, but the president's panel remains hampered by its inability to compel key witnesses to testify and turn over documents. Senate Republicans blocked a bill to grant the commission subpoena power in July. Now the Senate has gone home once without moving the measure forward.

The House passed the measure with nearly unanimous support in June, by a vote of 420 to 1. But the following month Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) objected to moving it forward, though he said he was just blocking it on behalf of another member of his caucus. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who has led the effort to get the bill passed in the upper chamber, tried to work out a way to get it through as a stand-alone measure before senators departed this week, but that didn't happen. While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said back in July that the Senate GOP would drop the objection, his spokesman told the Wall Street Journal this week that he had changed his mind; Republicans would again block the measure because they want a "congressionally appointed panel, not a panel appointed by Mr. Obama that some Republicans view as partisan."

Obviously, the stalemate in the Senate is the cause of much frustration these days. The spill commission is supposed to deliver a report on the disaster and recommendations for the future of offshore drilling to the president by mid-January, but is significantly limited by the inability to force witnesses to appear before the panel or provide necessary documents. The Houston Chronicle reports that commissioners are growing frustrated:

Bob Graham, Reilly's co-chairman, said Congress' inaction is curtailing investigators' attempts to sort out conflicting reports from workers involved.
"What we want to be able to do is put all of these people under ... oath and drill down as deep as necessary in order to resolve this conflict," said Graham, a former Democratic senator and governor from Florida. "Now, we are dependent on people voluntarily providing us information. If they choose not to cooperate, that's their prerogative, and we don't have any redress."

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), one of the sponsors of the House bill to give the commission some teeth, is also more than a little annoyed at the Senate impasse. "While the commission is getting to the bottom of how this catastrophe happened, BP and other companies involved with the spill are still giving it the runaround," she said. "Without this critical tool – which the co-chairmen have asked for–Big Oil will keep stonewalling the investigation in the hopes they can escape being held accountable for their mistakes."

Audio: The Vatican Goes Green

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

The Holy See has embarked on a new mission: the fight against climate change. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Vatican City would strive to become the first carbon-neutral state. Although the Vatican's plan to purchase carbon offset credits fell through, the sovereign city-state has harnessed the power of the sun with solar panels and a solar generator, and has also made progress with energy conservation efforts. Pope Benedict has added a religious element to the climate change debate by framing the issue as a moral imperative.

To discuss these unprecedented efforts, Need to Know's Alison Stewart spoke with Mark Hopkins, an energy expert with the United Nations Foundation who has 30 years of experience in energy policy and program development. Hopkins toured the Vatican's new energy efficient facilities last year.

St. Peter's Basilica is seen in the background of a solar panel set up on the roof of the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Photo: Evandro Inetti/Zumapress.comSt. Peter's Basilica is seen in the background of a solar panel set up on the roof of the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Photo: Evandro Inetti/Zumapress.com

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

BP and DOJ: Deal or No Deal?

| Wed Sep. 29, 2010 11:34 AM EDT

The Associated Press reports that the Department of Justice may be seeking to cut a deal with BP over fines resulting from the Gulf spill rather than hashing it out in court. The AP's main source is the office of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), which says it as tipped off via their work on a spill-response bill.

A DOJ official tells Politico there's no deal in the works. But, deal or no deal, how the department handles this issue is crucial, as there is a huge amount of money at stake.

The question right now is whether the DOJ will make the case that it was BP's negligence that led to the explosion and subsequent spill. Here's why that matters: fines for Clean Water Act violations begin at $1,100 per barrel spilled and jump to $4,300 per barrel if the company is deemed negligent. If DOJ settles with BP, the company would likely fork over the cash faster, whereas seeking the higher penalty would almost inevitably result in protracted legal wrangling. But when you consider that an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil were dumped into the Gulf over the course of the spill, the difference between those two penalties could really add up. Based on the Justice Department's conclusion, BP could face anywhere from a $5.4 billion to $21 billion fine.

This becomes even more relevant this week, since on Tuesday former Mississippi governor and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who Obama tapped to lead the Gulf recovery planning effort, recommended that the money go directly to the region to cover both short- and long-term restoration efforts (as the Gulf coast was already facing quite a few environmental challenges before the spill). Under current law, the revenue from those Clean Water Act fines is supposed to go into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to cover future oil spill cleanups. But the Mabus report recommends that Congress pass a new law to direct a "significant amount of any civil penalties" to a new fund, and create a Gulf Coast Restoration Council that would determine how best to spend that money. The report also endorsed sending some of the funds directly to the states to support their restoration efforts.

The Obama administration endorsed the recommendations of the Mabus report yesterday, but whether Congress will take action is anybody's guess. Scalise and other Gulf state legislators, including Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, are lobbying for a change that would devote 80 percent of that money directly to impacted states. How the DOJ decides to approach the fines will make a huge difference in how much money there is to fight over.

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"BP Cover-Up" Expert New MacArthur Genius

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 6:24 PM EDT

I had fun sailing with Kelly Benoit-Bird in April and helping out with a small portion of the research she and Margaret McManus are conducting off Hawaii. They're studyingthrough soundthe behavior and ecology of the the ocean's deep scattering layer. I featured Benoit-Bird and her work in my cover article for this month's Mother Jones, BP's Deep Secrets. The deep scattering layer—with its aggregation of fishes, squids, crustaceans, and other dark-sea dwellershave likely been hard hit by BP's oily freight train run amuck in the Gulf of Mexico.

It was with real pleasure I learned that Benoit-Bird has won one of this year's MacArthur fellowships. I can hardly imagine anyone more deserving. Since we first met her in her office at Oregon State University a couple of years ago, I was seriously impressed with her amazing intellect and vision—the likes of which enable her to think far outside the scientific paradigm to intiate new research. Her phenomenal brain also enables her to  develop new tools, or modify old tools, to pursue her investigations. That's a rare combo.

Here's the MacArthur video of Kelly explaining her work.

The MacArthur Foundation page describes Kelly as a marine biologist who uses sophisticated acoustic engineering techniques to explore the previously invisible behavior of ocean creatures at scales ranging from swarms distributed over many cubic kilometers to individual predators:

Although zooplankton drift in response to ocean currents, Benoit-Bird has shown that they use their modest locomotive capacity to form swarms with distinct three-dimensional structures that change with feeding conditions. Using multi-frequency acoustic backscattering, she has been able to reconstruct the feeding patterns of swimming predators of zooplankton (known as nekton) as they first pass downward through a layer of zooplankton, then reverse course and pass through upward. Having precise data about the horizontal and vertical distribution of oceanic food webs opens a new path for understanding the complexities of marine ecology. Further up the food chain, Benoit-Bird has investigated and illuminated the behavior of mammalian predators such as spinner dolphins, which hunt nekton in small, coordinated groups. These groups follow a carefully choreographed sequence of movements, repeated many times, to minimize the opportunity for the prey to escape. Using advanced acoustic engineering technology that she has modified and optimized for applications specific to her research, Benoit-Bird is addressing long-unanswered questions and providing the marine ecology community with a clearer picture of the structure and behavior of food chains.

If you want to see the übercool data animations of Kelly's spinner dolphin work, check this out. The explanation can be found on this page, as a supplement to her paper:

Benoit-Bird, K.J. & Au, W.W.L. 2009 "Cooperative prey herding by a pelagic dolphin, Stenella longirostris." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 125: 539-546.

Science Shots: Wanking Squirrels, Sinking Houston; Fungi Cooperation; GM Pollution

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 4:10 PM EDT

A sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: the masturbation strategies of African squirrels; Houston, we have a sinking problem; yes, mushrooms cooperate, sort of; and new-found form of GM stream pollution.

  • Northwest Houston is sinking rapidlyby as much as 2 inches a year, according to a new paper in Tectonophysics. The reason: groundwater withdrawal, a practise that's ceased in most of the Houston area, yet continues in the northwest, where rapid population growth continues. The problem's not new. The Brownwood neighborhood was developed in the 1930s when ground elevation was 3 meters/10 feet above sea level. Forty years later, the neighborhood stood just half a meter above sea level and was subject to frequent flooding. Hurricane Alicia destroyed the subdivision in 1983, after which the area became the Baytown Nature Center. Brownwood's sinking is attributed to the massive groundwater withdrawal by petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel.
  • Mushroom spores cooperate. Really. New research in PNAS finds that forcibly ejected spores of some  fungi, including the pathogen Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, disperse with astonishing rapidity. By synchronizing the ejection of thousands of spores, these fungi create their own airflow, which carry the spores through nearly still air, around obstacles, and into atmospheric currents (therefore to new infection sites). Although many spores are sacrificed to produce the favorable airflow (creating the potential for conflict between spores), the geometry of the spore jet physically benefits those spores that cooperate maximally in its production. Synchronized spore ejection may prove a model for the evolution of stable self-organized behaviors. High-speed imaging shows synchronization is self-organized and likely triggered by mechanical stresses.
  • Streams in the midwest are receiving insecticidal proteins from genetically modified crops. The authors assessed 217 stream sites in Indiana and found dissolved insecticidal proteins from GM corn present in a quarter of them. The study was conducted six months after harvest, revealing that proteins persist in the landscape. The worry is that corn byproducts may alter the health of freshwaters. Ultimately, streams that originate in the corn belt drain into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. More than 85 percent of US corn crops were genetically modified to repel pests and/or resist herbicide exposure in 2009, so it's likely we're seeing the tip of a whole new iceberg here. The paper's in PNAS.
  • My personal favorite, a PLoS ONE paper called "The Adaptive Function of Masturbation in a Promiscuous African Ground Squirrel." The  author asked, why are these highly promiscuous squirrels wanking so much? She observed Cape ground squirrels in Namibia for 2,000 hours, wending her way through six hypotheses. Her data supported this reason:

Another possible explanation is that masturbation functions to remove potential infections transferred from a female that has previously mateda form of genital grooming. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can have profound effects on fitness, even if there are no apparent symptoms. Just having an immune response to infection can affect human male fertility, including ejaculate volume, sperm concentration, sperm mobility, and sperm morphology. This hypothesis predicts that masturbation should occur on a day of oestrus, after successfully copulating, and should increase with the number of mates a female accepts. All of these predictions were supported by the masturbation data of Cape ground squirrels.

These results suggest that masturbation in this species was not a response to sperm competition nor a sexual outlet by subordinates that did not copulate. Instead masturbation could function as a form of genital grooming. Female Cape ground squirrels mate with up to 10 males in a 3-hr oestrus, and by masturbating after copulation males could reduce the chance of infection. Sexually transmitted infections can profoundly affect fertility, and their consequences for mating strategies need to be examined more fully.

Bond Tries (and Fails) Yet Another EPA Block

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 11:03 AM EDT

Democrats batted down yet another attempt to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating planet-warming gasses on Monday. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) tried to offer legislation that Democrat Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) drafted earlier this year that would bar climate regulations for two years.

Bond attempted to get the measure approved under unanimous consent, but Democrats rejected it. After the attempt, Bond issued the obligatory angry statement about how Democrats blocked his valient attempt to stop "job-killing carbon regulations." "If the Democrats are serious about protecting jobs they would have sided with the American people, rather than EPA bureaucrats," said Bond. "It’s disappointing that Democrats again blocked bipartisan action to protect the American people from the backdoor national energy tax coming in the form of new job-killing carbon regulations from EPA."

Meanwhile, Rockefeller still plans to introduce his own measure this year, likely after the mid-term election. At that point it may be more of a threat, as at least six or seven Democrats will likely back it, along with the entire Republican caucus.

"Topless Mountains Are Obscene"

| Tue Sep. 28, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

I wrote yesterday about the Appalachia Rising events taking place in Washington, DC this week to call for federal action to stop mountaintop-removal coal mining. On Monday, approximately 2,000 Appalachians and supporters marched from the Environmental Protection Agency to the White House, demanding an end to the practice.

The group also stopped at a branch of PNC Bank, which has come under fire for providing loans to the coal companies that engage in this destructive type of mining. More than 100 activists were later arrested at the White House for occupying the sidewalk outside in an act of civil disobedience.

Here are some photos from the march: